Oklahoma storms: Many Spanish-speaking families struggle to understand storm precautions, officials say

BY JULIANA KEEPING and HANNAH COVINGTON Modified: July 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm •  Published: July 14, 2013
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“Take care of your families,” Samuel Cifuentes told everyone he knew.

He was filled with a sense of foreboding May 31 as bad weather moved toward Oklahoma City. He wanted to stay safe, and for others to say safe. Something was nagging him. He urged his co-workers and the families at his son's day care to be careful. He made a joke to friends about giving away his soccer shoes.

“I don't think I'm going to play soccer anymore,” he told friends, recalled Cifuentes' cousin, Octavio Aguilar.

“He had a bad feeling about that day,” Aguilar said. “He hadn't joked like that before. He was a happy guy. We played indoor soccer together every Sunday night.”

Samuel Cifuentes, 33, made a home in northwest Oklahoma City with his wife, Florinda Santos, 34, and their son, Alex, 4. The brick home with a manicured yard near NW 26 and N Meridian Avenue sits in a growing enclave of people from Guatemala. In the past decade, the city's Hispanic population has exploded, including those from the Central American nation.

Florinda Santos' cousin, Yolanda Sarat-Santos, 34, and her three children joined the family about a year ago from Arizona, after a divorce. Few in the area knew her well; she worked long hours as a maid to support her children Lesly, 7; Christopher, 4; and Brandon, 8 — as well as family back in Guatemala.

The seven relatives took cover in a storm drain near their home May 31, thinking it was the safest place. None of them survived the rushing waters.

Aguilar wonders if a better warning system for Spanish speakers could have saved their lives.

That question has started a citywide discussion about reaching out to the area's skyrocketing Hispanic population during severe weather.

False sense of security

There was a back-and-forth, a neighbor recalled, to hand the children down to outstretched arms. One by one, each was sheltered in the storm drain that ran under the road.

Now, beyond the canal, a memorial stands — little golden angel figurines for the children, colorful bouquets for their parents. A breeze volleys deflated pastel balloons tied to a rusty guardrail.

Samuel Cifuentes did not expect a flood, Aguilar said.

“That was the first time they had taken shelter under the bridge,” Aguilar said. “He thinks there is going to be a tornado close to their house. He got scared by the weathermen telling them to take shelter. He knew what happened in Moore and was just trying to keep his family safe.”

Their house had no storm shelter.

“He never, never think about the water.”

In the weeks following the barrage of May storms, representatives from the Hispanic community have met with state and city officials to discuss better ways to help Spanish-speakers find safety during severe weather. The National Weather Service office in Norman does not offer bilingual storm information.

The staff at Telemundo KTUZ-TV, the metro area's Spanish-language television station, went off air at 6:45 p.m. May 31 as the staff took cover. Sirens rang out as an EF1 tornado approached the station's south Oklahoma City office, 5101 Shields Blvd.

Multiple tornadoes raked the area at the time, including the record-breaking EF5 twister that hit near El Reno. The broadcast went back on air at 9 p.m., said Ubaldo Martinez, news director and lead anchor.

Nine of the 23 deaths in the May 31 disaster came from Oklahoma's growing Guatemalan community, many unfamiliar with the fury of spring storms. Five of those were children, including a 17-day-old infant.

As they struggled to understand storm precautions, panic ensued in many Hispanic houses.

Thousands called the Latino Community Development Agency, an Oklahoma-City based outreach center, said Ruben Aragon, president of the agency.

“There were a lot of Latino families that didn't know what to do in that storm and just reacted, and there was a greater loss of life than there had to be,” Aragon said. “This is not a matter of politics. It's a matter of life and death.”

Spanish-speaking victims

“Mi amor, nos vamos a morir.”

It means, “My love, we're going to die.”

They were Maria Pol Martin's last words to her husband, Miguel Chicoj.

The couple met in Guatemala. They said goodbye in Oklahoma.

The EF5 tornado pulled Pol Martin, 26, and her 17-day-old son, Rey Chicoj Pol, out of their minivan on Interstate 40 in El Reno. Chicoj and two of the couple's other children in the minivan survived, even though the tornado picked up the vehicle and crushed it. Chicoj lives west of Hinton in a mobile home park and works at a hog farm.

Pol Martin and her baby were among the nine May 31 storm victims from Spanish-speaking families.

Chicoj said he had misunderstood a weather forecast on the radio, though it was a Spanish station. He thought the tornado danger would begin about 2 a.m. Saturday rather than 2 p.m. Friday.

At least 42,000 Hispanic people in Oklahoma City do not speak English well, according to research from the Pew Hispanic Center, a branch of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

The agency conducted a survey of Hispanic people and found most Hispanics believe immigrants should have to speak English to be a part of American society, though a significant minority disagreed.

When it comes to severe weather, language difficulties can be fatal, Aragon said.

“They speak enough English to get along in their jobs, but there is still a language barrier, enough so there's always a risk for miscommunication and lives that could be lost,” Aragon said.

Aguilar, Samuel Cifuentes' cousin, speaks English and said he understood that roads were dangerous.

His children panicked and begged him to leave the house. He told them, “No guys. We cannot move,” he said.

“I heard on the radio streets were more dangerous with all the accidents that time of day. So we stayed home, got in the bathroom and put something over their heads.”

Aguilar questions whether his cousin understood the warnings correctly.

“We have never heard a warning given in Spanish,” he said. “In the future, we need some notice and some news in Spanish because a lot of people don't understand in English ‘Stay in the house,' or ‘Don't move.' They don't understand.”

Getting the word out

Oklahoma City's Hispanic population is about 100,000, or about 17 percent of the total population, according to 2010 Census figures. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates undocumented residents living in Oklahoma City number at least 44,000.

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